Weeknote 12 - The genres of web media

I guess this is a Wednesday thing now.

Work: The genres of web media

One of the more interesting aspects of my current project at work is how much of a change it has been from what I’ve worked on so far in my career. Basically, I’ve switched genres. There are a few core genres in web media:

  1. Web media proper.
  2. Social media.
  3. Games.
  4. Apps.

And I’ve generally focused on working on number 1.

Now, this is the point where a lot of programmers start jumping up and down, complaining that the lines between these categories are too blurry for them to mean anything.

Mind you, it’s only the half-educated 'fagfábjánar' with little understanding of subjects other than computer science and objectivist superhero fan fiction who are doing the jumping. The rest understand that I used the word ‘genre’ for a reason.

To drastically simplify things for the non-humanities crowd: genres are defined by the conventions of the form and the expectations of the audience. And any given work can belong to many genres at once, just as long as it plays with the right conventions and meets (somewhat) the audience’s expectations. While a genre can be used for classification and categorisation for the most part it is a label for a commonly recognised axis of meaning between the author, the work, and the audience.

(For the science-rules-humanities-drools crowd: the above is a simplification akin to saying that ‘gravity is what happens when objects are heavy enough to bend space’. Sure, that isn’t utterly wrong, but there’s also a lot more going on.)

On the web, we have four core genres with differing conventions and expectations. Web media is the web as a media artefact: blogs, news sites, articles, video, wikis, etc. Social media is a dynamic, multi-user hypertext contained within a single space governed by a very small set of interaction conventions. Games are widgets that make trivial things difficult for fun. Apps are widgets that make trivial things difficult for work.

Like I wrote above, works can belong to multiple genres at once. Medium can both be a shitty web media site and a shitty web app both at the same time. Youtube and Facebook are both social media and web apps. You can probably gameify anything these days. And, much like many writing skills are transferable between novel genres, web dev skills in one genre are often useful in another.

You’ll often, as an example, find devs working in different genres using the same libraries and frameworks, albeit in fairly different ways.

But most of us in web development tend to focus on one genre in our careers. Most of the web dev work outside of the US west coast is in web media: dynamic hypertext that delivers a lot of information with a bit of interactivity and functionality. Wordpress sites, ecommerce sites, intranets, CMSes of many stripes, visualisations, content publishing, institutional sites, etc. One of the hallmarks of web media is that you can do a lot with very small teams. You can get a lot done when you combine a bit of server-side rendering with a layer of client-side interactivity and a nice bit of CSS.

‘A lot’ here is genre dependent, of course. ‘A lot of interesting work’ in web media will look like nothing to somebody working on web apps and vice versa.

My current project at work is pretty solidly in the web app genre, something I was in a bit of denial about when it was in its early stages. Like I’ve mentioned in earlier weeknotes, switching genres has been enlightening. All of a sudden, web component specs like Shadow DOM start to make a whole lot more sense.

(So that’s why people think it’s cool.)

The ‘funnest’ realisation has been that a lot of things that are very bad ideas for most web media projects (entirely client-rendered SPAs where everything is done in the client) turn out to be actually sensible ideas on the app side that when done right, instead of ruining an app, can make it faster and more accessible.

Choices that work in one genre may not work in another. You don’t give a romance novel that fancy bleak ‘Chinatown’ style ending.

I’m of the opinion that web software is a trend-driven media industry and not engineering. It’s akin to fashion or cinema: an industry that wouldn’t exist without advanced technology and industrialisation and cannot function with a shit-ton of engineering but as an experience it is fundamentally defined by creative choices.

For many of the choices we face as web developers and designers there isn’t a single right or wrong answer. But maybe there are a couple of questions:

  1. Are we meeting the expectations of the audience we engaging with?
  2. Are we playing with our chosen genre’s conventions in a way that they appreciate?

I’m hoping that the answer to both those questions for our current project will be ‘yes’. But it’s still a long process to get from here to there.

Reading

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers. This is basically the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels that is actually like what I’d hoped these stories would be like. Strong Poison was almost there but this one has sanded away most of the features that weren’t working in the earlier novels. It offers a contemporary glimpse at 1930s English society coupled with a nicely done puzzle-oriented murder mystery. Less of the upper class flimflam that dominated the early books; more of a broad cut of society.

And, to be quite honest, I would have preferred Harriet Vane as a series protagonist over Lord Peter Wimsey. He’d have worked well as a supporting cast love interest.

Still, they are all competent murder mysteries.

Also read A Girl Like her by Talia Hibbert which was a pleasant surprise. It isn’t often that I see myself in one of a novel’s leads but this time I did. YMMV, but I really enjoyed this one.